GK Chesterton remarked that if “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” So it was with The Outlaw Josey Wales which upon my umpteenth viewing last night I realized is a very strange movie.
A standard stock critic phrase is to say "It's a film that couldn’t be made today". Normally that’s a half truth at best. A way to remark on something’s frank treatment of subject matter or content or style without repeating oneself. But in the case of The Outlaw Josey Wales it feels true. It has nothing to do with the content. One could imagine the rich revenge story being eagerly green lit even in an era as Western shy as this one. It’s all in the telling, ramshackle and episodic in the best sense, and in the tone.
The Outlaw Josey Wales isn’t a hippie western, despite it’s flower child friendly story of outcasts making a family on the outskirts of society and PC politics. (Though if original director Phillip Kaufman had helmed it would almost have certainly been) One cannot even rightly call it a revisionist western. It is, if one must label it a folklore Western. Josey Wales carries in him a deeper kinship with Paul Bunyan than he does with The Man With No Name.
It’s territory that Eastwood would tread before and again. Both High Plains Drifter (which precedes Wales) and Pale Rider are consciously fables. Bronco Billy probably moreso than either of them. But there’s something pure about Welles. Something in it that feels like oral storytelling. Take the moment perhaps the key one in the film, in which Eastwood talks a bounty hunter out a duel, only to have the bounty hunter come back saying he’d never be able to live with not taking his shot. Eastwood almost sympathetically kills him. Later he would put it a different way with the immortal “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”
Its some of the most confident work that Eastwood has ever done. Both as an actor and director. It would be easy to imagine Eastwood taking notes during McCabe and Mrs. Miller, with the dark interiors that cake the actors in shadow like Western Noir, and the dust choked filthy exteriors (though as previously remarked the romanticism of the story counteracts the revisionism). Aided immensely by the textured film stock and the work of Bruce Surtrees, one of the great unsung heroes of 70’s cinematography. (Also awesome Chief Dan George)
It’s a great performance as an actor as well. Deep in middle age, scarred, grisled, and gray haired looking like a very pissed off wolf throughout. Yet it’s also a very human one. From the very beginning of his career Eastwood knew the value of being an icon, and perhaps no actor has employed that better. But Welles stands alone out of Eastwood’s heroes (at least in this era) by being defined more by his vulnerability than his competence and cool. He hurts. As a result when he unleashes his righteous fury on the deserving you better believe you feel it.
Though flawed by a gratuitously prolonged rape scene and Sandra Locke, giving her standard Sandra Locke performance, The Outlaw Josey Wales remains a great watch. It’s a deeply eccentric film. I can’t help but feel awful glad that it exists.